For CCCC this year, I was asked to serve as a respondent for the session Secondary Orality and Digital Mobocracy (D.25, Thursday, March 22, 3:15-4:30 pm)

As respondent, my role was to “provide brief a perspective on the work of Walter Ong especially as Ong’s work pertains to the issues covered by the above speakers. The respondent will also address the above speakers’ different interpretations of Ong’s work and connect their interpretations to the larger concern of Ong’s continued relevance to composition and rhetoric studies.” Presented here is a longer version of my prepared comments. It ends abruptly so that I could end the talk by addressing the individual papers and their relationship to Ong’s work.

Session Title: Secondary Orality and Digital Mobocracy


Introduction: Quote and Anecdote

I want to begin with both a quote and an anecdote. First, the quote from Fr. Ong’s 1970 article “Comment: Voice, Print, and Culture”:

Speech is essentially a spoken and heard phenomenon, a matter of voice and ear, an event in the world of sound. Words are sounds. Written words are substitutes for sound and are only marks on a surface until they are converted to sound again, either in the imagination or by actual vocalization.

We know this, but we find it almost impossible to grasp its full implications. The spoken word has become entangled with writing and print. When we talk about words, we are seldom sure whether we mean spoken words or written words or printed words or all of these simultaneously. (87)

And now the anecdote: During the first year I was in the Ph.D. program at Saint Louis University, one of our professors, Dr. Casaregola, had taken me and another graduate student to talk with Fr. Ong. At the time I was trying to work out the problem of what to call the oral-like characteristics of written online communication. I knew that some people were applying the term secondary orality to the phenomena and that others had started using the term tertiary orality. The problem with either term, my fellow graduate student had pointed out to me, was that written online communication isn’t oral; it’s written. I raised the issue with Fr. Ong and asked if maybe secondary literacy might be a better term. Before he had a chance to respond, I added, “I just don’t know what to make of all this.” He said something about having put some thought to the issue and then replied, “I don’t know what to make of it either.”

And that, I think, is a central question raised by these presentations today: What do we make of all this? When we talk about words, are we talking about spoken words, written words, printed words, or all of them simultaneously? On the surface this question may seem simple. After all, oral communication is auditory and written and printed communication is visual. But, if it were that simple, why was I struggling with these questions. And why were so many others? And why, in fact, did Fr. Ong himself reply, “I don’t know what to make of it either”?

Peter Elbow, in the beginning of first chapter of his newest book, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, discusses specifically the difficulties in disentangling speech from writing and then spends the chapter trying to do so. In summarizing, he notes that while the differences between speech and writing are clear when we consider them as physical processes, as physical media, and as sensory modalities, the distinction is not so clear when we think about them as language or as products (19). The distinction between speech and writing as language and speech and writing as products become slippery, he notes, “because it depends so much upon social and cultural forces rather than the physical realm” (19). And that’s a key issue to remember here: when we talk about issues of orality and literacy, we are sometimes talking about physical processes, sometimes talking about physical media, sometimes talking about sensory modalities, sometimes talking about language, sometimes talking about products, and sometimes talking about many or all of them simultaneously. As Peter Elbow explains, “much of the confusion about speaking and writing [or, I would add, orality and literacy] comes from not noticing how these words operate in multiple realms or dimensions” (13). When working with these terms, we need to be precise, both for ourselves and for others.

With that said, I want to make a few comments to help us better understand Fr. Ong’s work in orality-literacy contrasts, better understand how that work has been and continues to be relevant to the study composition and rhetoric, and how better to understand the presentations in this session.

Definition of Orality-Literacy Contrasts

First, it might be of use to define what we mean when we talk about orality and literacy within the context of Fr. Ong’s work. In a 1996 interview in Composition Forum, Fr. Ong defines orality-literacy contrasts as “the understanding of the relationships between verbal as well as other types of human expression and the total evolution of the cosmos that we human beings are part of and are still learning more and more about daily” (Kleine and Gale, 83). Fr. Ong described what he did as associative, as trying to describe how various elements of human communication interrelate with consciousness, with culture, with technology, and with the cosmos at large. Understood in this light, the boundaries between the study orality-literacy contrasts and the study of composition and rhetoric are difficult to discern.

Aural/Visual Roots

Scattered throughout the correspondence in the Walter J. Ong Manuscript Collection are accounts of what Fr. Ong calls his central discovery, an account of which can be found in Nielson’s “A Bridge Builder: Walter J. Ong at 80.” About this discovery, Ong explains,:

It happened while I was doing my dissertation research in France […]. I was reading Rudoph Bultmann, the Protestant theologian, who made reference to the idea that knowing, for the Hebrews, had to do with hearing and sound, while the Greeks thought of knowing as related to seeing. I guess it took me about a day, but suddenly I could see how the whole thing fit together (404).

Issues of orality and literacy aren’t just issues about spoken and written words but of how we organize and perceive the world in terms of acoustic and visual space. Both rhetoric and poetics, Ong explains in his unfinished manuscript Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization, has its origins in the Greek word mythos and the Indo-European root meduh, which “signifies to reflect, think over, consider – activities interior to the human being” (1-2). Logic and dialectic, on the other hand, he explains, have their origins in the Greek logos, which has connotations of “computation, reckoning, account of money handled, hence treatment of cognitive matters in terms of discrete units—which are the basis of digitization” and the Indo-European root leg-, which is based upon “a spatialized, exteriorized visual and/or tactile metaphor” (2).

For a more detailed discussion of Ong’s exploration of the sensorium and the aural/oral-visual roots in Ong’s exploration of orality and literacy, see The Presence of the Word, “‘I See What You Say’: Sense Analogues for Intellect,” and, to a lesser extent, Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue.

What Breaking Ong’s Work Down to Orality->Literacy->Secondary Orality Misses

Another point I would like to make is that all too often when we discuss the oral-to-visual shift Ong describes in his work, we simplify it to just three stages: orality, literacy, and secondary orality. What this oversimplification leaves out is Ong’s concepts of primary orality (and its distinction from oralism), textuality, residual orality, digitization, secondary literacy and secondary visualism. Furthermore, this oversimplification gives the impression of a simple linear progression of technological development which Ong never intended, a point he makes explicit in the “Complications and Overlappings” section of chapter 2 of The Presence of the Word. In other words, Ong gave us a number of terms and concepts that far too few of us make use of.

Provisional nature

While Ong gave us these terms, he never intended for his work to be the final say. As a Jesuit priest, he believed that as time progresses God reveals to us more and more of Creation. Ong believed that his role, as both a priest and a scholar, was to describe God’s Creation as we currently understood it. I can’t stress this point enough as it means that Ong believed his work to always be provisional and always subject to revision as we learn more and more about the universe. He discusses this issue most fully in the essays “Knowledge in Time” and “Secular Knowledge and Revealed Religion,” and he makes explicit the provisional nature of his ideas in Orality & Literacy in the chapter “Some Psychodynamics of Orality.”

Before he lists the ten characteristics of orally based thought, he explains:

This inventory of characteristics is not presented as exclusive or conclusive but as suggestive, for much more work and reflection is needed to deepen understanding of orally based thought (and thereby understanding chiographically based thought, typographically based thought, and electronically based thought). (36)

This crucial qualification is almost always left out of discussions of this chapter, most notably in Beth Daniell’s “Against the Great Leap Theory of Literacy.” When working with Ong’s terminology and concepts, we need to regard Ong’s work as a framework to extend, to develop, to push forward, and to push against.

Secondary Orality, Secondary Literacy, and Secondary Visualism

While Fr. Ong told me he wasn’t sure what to make of all this, the fact of the matter is that he had put much thought into it, and he had presented his ideas, both in an interview with Kleine and Gale, published in Composition Forum in 1996, and in some public lectures. To wrap up my comments, I want to end with a brief discussion of how Ong defined secondary orality, secondary literacy, and secondary visualism.

About secondary orality, he explains to Kleine and Gale that he began using the term, he meant the orality associated with radio and television, and he called it “secondary orality” because of its heavy reliance upon literacy and technologies enabled by literacy:

When I first used the term ‘secondary orality,’ I was thinking of the kind of orality you get on radio and television, where oral performance produces effects somewhat like those of ‘primary orality,’ the orality using the unprocessed human voice, particularly in addressing groups, but where the creation of orality is of a new sort. Orality here is produced by technology. Radio and television are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they are technologically powered, demanding the use of writing and other technologies in designing and manufacturing the machines which reproduce voice. They are thus unlike primary orality, which uses no tools or technology at all. Radio and television provide technologized orality. This is what I originally referred to by the term ‘secondary orality.’ (Kleine and Gale 80)

In the interview, Ong addresses the problem of oral-like characteristics in online written discourse by simultaneously acknowledging its oral-like features while at the same time establishing written discourse as something visual rather than aural-oral. He, in fact, coins the term “secondary literacy” which I brought up with him some years later:

I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In nontechnologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality.’ (Kleine and Gale 80-81)

While Ong mentions secondary literacy in the Composition Forum interview, his brief treatment of secondary visualism exists only in unpublished lectures found in the Walter J. Ong Manuscript Collection. The most detailed discussion is from a lecture given to students in Saint Louis University’s Aquinas Institute of Theology on 6 October 1995. About secondary visualism, Fr. Ong says: “Secondary orality is now accompanied by secondary visualism: computerized texts, graphics, etc. Ultimately, ‘virtual reality’” (“Secondary Orality and Secondary Visualism” 3).

Works Cited

Daniell, Beth. “Against the Great Leap Theory of Literacy.” PRE/TEXT 7 (Fall-Winter 1986): 181-93.

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.

Kleine, Michael and Frederic Gale. “The Elusive Presence of the Word: An Interview with Walter Ong.” Composition Forum 7.2 (1996): 65-86.

Nielson, Mark. “A Bridge Builder: Walter J. Ong at 80.” America 167.16 (Nov. 21, 1992): 404-406.

Ong, Walter J. “Before Textuality: Orality and Interpretation.” Oral Tradition 3.3 (1988): 259-69; Rpt. in Faith and Contexts. Vol. 3: Further Essays, 1952-1990. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995. 215-25.

—. “Comment: Voice, Print, and Culture.” The Journal of Typographic Research 4.1 (1970): 77-83.

—. “Digitization Ancient and Modern: Beginnings of Writing and Today’s Computers.” Communication Research Trends 18.2 (1998): 4-21. Rpt. in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002. 527-49.

—. “Hermeneutic Forever: Voice, Text, Digitization, and the ‘I.’” Oral Tradition 10.1 (1995): 3-36. Rpt. in Faith and Contexts. Vol. 4: Additional Studies and Essays 1947-1996. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999. 183-203.

—. “‘I See What You Say’: Sense Analogues for Intellect.” Human Inquiries: Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry 10.1-3 (1970): 22-42. Rpt. in Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977. 122-44. Rpt. in Faith and Contexts. Vol. 3: Further Essays, 1952-1990. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul Soukup. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995. 91-111.

—. “Knowledge in Time.” Introduction to Knowledge and the Future of Man: An International Symposium. Ed. Walter J. Ong. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968. 3-38. Rpt. in Faith and Contexts. Vol. 1. Selected Essays and Studies, 1952-1991. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Intro. Farrell. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992. 127-53.

—. Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization. Ts. Walter J. Ong Manuscript Collection. Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis University.

—. “Oralism to Online Thinking.” Explorations in Media Ecology 2.1 (2003): 43-4.

—. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

—. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena of Religious History. The Terry Lectures. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.

—. Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

—. “Secondary Orality and Secondary Visualism.” Ts. Walter J. Ong Manuscript Collection. Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis University.

—. “Secular Knowledge, Revealed Religion, and History.” Religious Education 52.5 (1957): 341-49; Rpt as “Secular Knowledge and Revealed Religion” in American Catholic Crossroads: Religious-Secular Encounters in the Modern World. New York: The Macmillian Company, 1959. 74-95.

—. “Text as Interpretation: Mark and After.” Oral Tradition in Literature: Interpretation in Context. Ed. John Miles Foley. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986. 147-69. Rpt. in Faith and Contexts. Vol. 2. Supplementary Studies. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992. 191-210.